You’ve come a long way from where you were at this time last year. You’ve traded cheeseburgers and fries for lean protein and veggies, you’ve been lifting weights instead of lifting the TV remote, and you’ve kickboxed, lunged, and dieted your way into a whole new wardrobe that’s two sizes smaller than your old one. In fact, you’re feeling so good that you just know those last ten pounds will melt away in no time … and then you step onto the scale and the self-doubt sets in: Why do I weigh exactly what I did two weeks ago? I’ve been eating healthy stuff and working out like crazy. What happened to losing a pound per week? What if I don’t reach my goal weight after all? Oh no!
If this scenario sounds familiar, you’re not alone—weight-loss plateaus are part and parcel of dieting for most people. But for dieters who have been consistently disciplined about following a healthy, active regimen, hitting this wall often feels like cruel and unusual punishment. Just when you can almost fit into the fabulous new dress you bought to reward yourself for all your hard work, the zipper—and the scale—gets stuck. It’s enough to make you want to wave the white flag (or the carton of ice cream, as the case may be) and stop torturing yourself with salads and long sessions on the elliptical. But before you put on your most forgiving pair of sweatpants and make a banana split to comfort yourself, take a moment to consider these steps for rejuvenating your routine and finally summiting that weight-loss mountain you’ve been climbing.
Variety Is the Spice of Diets
If you’ve been on a diet for a long time, your body no longer feels like it’s adjusting, so it becomes complacent—and voilà, plateau. A promising means of beating your body at its own game is to confuse it by varying the number of calories or the types of food you consume each day—even if that means eating more than you have been. For example, if you’ve been ingesting 1,600 calories daily for the past six months, try indulging in an extra two-hundred-calorie snack one day, limiting yourself to 1,200 calories the following day, and so on. This is also your chance to dabble in a trendy diet that you haven’t wanted to commit to fully, so if you’ve been eating primarily vegetarian foods but are hankering for a steak, escape to the Atkins diet for a few days. And if you’ve been eating a protein-heavy diet, you might try switching to carbs temporarily.
Work It on Out
More exercise? But you’ve been so diligent about hitting the gym! That may be so, but what’s really going to make the difference at this crucial stage of your diet is high-intensity intervals on your cardio machine of choice. For instance, if you typically set the elliptical at resistance level four, alternate it with resistance level eight throughout your workout; the same goes for the incline on the treadmill. Get your heart racing and your limbs moving as fast as possible during the higher-resistance intervals, then catch your breath at the lower resistance for a minute or two before ramping up again. In addition to lowering your weight faster, this technique helps boost your metabolism and reduce your body fat.
The ideal complement to your cardio routine is strength training, which revs up your metabolism by turning fat into muscle. If strength training isn’t part of your regular regime, now is a good time to start integrating it. And if you’ve been doing it all along, don’t pat yourself on the back too soon—there’s a good chance that you’re not using heavy enough weights to affect your metabolic rate. Try doing fewer reps with heavier weights for optimal results; if you can do only eight to twelve reps before your arms give out, you’re right on target.
Timing Is Everything
If you’re changing up your food and exercise routines and you still can’t get yourself out of your diet rut, it could be because you’re eating meals at less-than-ideal times of the day, thereby hindering your metabolism. Because our hormone levels fluctuate throughout the day, many nutrition experts believe that it’s best to consume calories when our bodies are at their most active—and that doesn’t always mean right after we exercise. While eating right after working out can certainly facilitate your weight-loss efforts, morning is the time of day when you’ll do your body the most good by eating, so having breakfast is essential. This may seem like counterintuitive advice—after all, eating an extra meal means consuming more calories, right? Wrong. When we’re asleep, we receive no nutritional input for hours on end, so when we refuel in the morning, our bodies are primed to maximize their use of incoming calories. Protein is particularly important at breakfast time, since our bodies deplete their reserves of it to regenerate our muscles, hair, skin, and nails while we sleep. And digesting protein-rich foods actually burns more calories than digesting the same amount of carbohydrates or fats does, because our bodies have to work harder to metabolize protein.
Because we produce most of our energy in the daytime and begin to slow down at night, the quantities of food we eat at specific times of the day should reflect that decline. If you make breakfast your largest meal, eat a medium-size lunch, and limit yourself to a small, light dinner, you’ll do your metabolism a huge favor. You should also avoid consuming starchy carbohydrates (such as pasta, rice, and potatoes) in the evening; carbs cause your insulin levels to spike and impede your body’s ability to burn fat, whereas lean proteins and low-sugar vegetables keep your insulin levels balanced and encourage fat burning all night. Finally, plan to stop eating a few hours before bedtime to accommodate your slowing digestive system. Because you’re about to enter your least active phrase of the day, burning off a big dinner will be difficult for your body.
There is a light at the end of the weight-loss tunnel, no matter how inaccessible it seems when you’re in the midst of a diet plateau. But if you make a commitment to diversifying your meals, your workouts, and your eating schedule, there’s a good chance that this bleak time will soon be a distant memory—not to mention that switching things up will make your day-to-day routine a lot less monotonous. And if you still want that banana split now, cheating once won’t kill you—but just remember to top it with a handful of protein-packed peanuts.